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Tribute to Christo and Jeanne-Claude

American Society of Landscape Architects, New York Chapter, New York, NY
November 3rd, 2005

Good evening. It is wonderful to see Christo and Jean-Claude here, not just in the park but adjacent to the very area that was their headquarters last year during the extraordinary period of the Gates – although my recollection is that they were less in their headquarters than driving about the Park in an enormous Maybach limousine that was lent to them for the occasion. At least I think it was lent to them. I don’t know; in the circles I travel in, a Maybach is not a typical artist’s car.

But then again, they are not typical artists. It is rare that we can say of an artist that we remember every encounter with his or her work, and that it is not just a casual memory, but a vivid and powerful one. Even with the artists we most admire, the moments tend to blur together – I don’t think any of us remember each and every time we have stood before a Matisse or a Picasso, however great they are.

With Christo and Jean-Claude, it is different. What person who was lucky enough to have been in Berlin in 1995 does not remember standing in front of the Reichstag – or being on the waterfront near Miami, looking at the surrounded islands, or in the Colorado mountains before the Valley Curtain, or California coast looking at the umbrellas, or in Paris at the wrapped Pont Neuf? Or, of course, being here in Central Park last year, where the triumphant Gates performed the extraordinary feat of at once transforming the experience of the park and confirming its basic nature. The genius of that work was that it didn’t fight Olmsted’s design, it just made it more so – it made the park even more what it always was, which is a beautiful piece of landscape that has the power of socializing a harsh city. Never has it been more beautiful than last February, and never had it been more successful at making the city a warm and engaging social fabric.

The first work by Christo and Jean-Claude that I saw in person was the Reichstag, and here, too, I realized their genius – it is to transform an object to help us understand its essence, to make it, for a brief moment in time, an event as well as an object, but in so doing, to enhance our sense and our understanding of that object. The Reichstag became beautiful, but the beauty was because the artists, in covering it, somehow magically revealed its bones at the same time, and helped us understand them. And because the event was both spectacular and brief, it attracted hordes of people and became socially transformative as well. They not only made the Reichstag work differently, they made the whole city of Berlin into something different.

We can say something similar about the effect of all of their works, but it is true most of all, I think, of the Gates, last year here in New York. All of us in this room know New York, we know its magic and its beauty and its hardness and its splendor and its challenge. And all of us know Central Park, which is, symbolically at least, the beginning of American landscape design as a mature art, as Jefferson is the beginning of American architecture as a mature art. In the last generation we have gone from taking Central Park with indifference, and letting it slip into physical decline, to treating it as a precious icon, restoring its landscape brilliantly and caring for it like a hothouse orchid. The love for the park that we built up over the last twenty or thirty years is of course a wonderful thing, given how close we came to almost losing the park. I remember what it was like in the nineteen-seventies. But now that we are past that period, we have the luxury, I think, to realize that our love could sometimes be a bit smothering and overprotective. That was certainly what motivated the objections to the early versions of the Gates, the belief not only that the park was too fragile for this work of art, but that it was an intervention, and therefore by its very nature was wrong, because the park was a museum piece in itself that could not allow any interventions of any kind.

It took a new and enlightened mayor, and some minor revisions in the design, to reverse this view, and the rest, I suppose, is history, or art history – or landscape history, since it really did prove that the park is a more resilient, living thing than some of its protectors had wanted us to believe. I live across the street from Central Park, and have the privilege of looking at it out my window every single day; I go into the park constantly, and I have studied Frederick Law Olmsted for much of my life, and I never experienced the park with the intensity I did last February. It was not just the beauty and power of all that saffron fabric, so different in the light of early morning shining through it from the east than in the light of high noon or, in some ways best of all, the soft, even gray light of a cloudy day. It was the way in which the Gates made me look more clearly at the pathways, and the hills and the ridges, and the rock outcroppings and the bridges, at the way in which the park moved gently and gracefully from formal gathering places to casual, rolling areas of rusticity.

The true genius of the park design is not aesthetic, for all its the breathtaking beauty of this artificially created landscape. And it is not in engineering, for all the brilliance of the way in which roads and pathways and bridle paths have been separated and each given their own parallel infrastructures, we might say. No, the greater genius of Olmsted and Calvert Vaux was the way in which they envisioned the park as a way of furthering the democratic ideal, since they designed it to encourage the mixing of every social class in the city, as a place in which people whose lives did not otherwise intersect could come together in a benign and beautiful environment. It was a democratic vision, and an urban vision – a way of making the city not just a marketplace, but a place of joy and social uplift.

And never was it more these things than last February, when everyone who entered the park could pass, triumphantly, under one of these great, billowing saffron gates – and then under another and another and another. Every one of these gates a momentary triumphal arch for a citizen, and also a beautiful object. To experience the Gates was to be ennobled, to feel that you, as an individual, was the person for whom this thing was created, and the person for whom the park itself was made.

I cannot think of anything truer to Olmsted and Vaux’s vision than what Christo and Jean-Claude did last year. They made every one of us experience the park as Olmsted and Vaux wanted us to experience it – as the highest, best, and noblest and most beautiful thing that New York could be. They made us feel that the park was created for us, as indeed it was. They made us feel exuberant, and more important, that we had every right to that exuberance. And they made us understand that we are all in this place together, which is the most important thing of all.

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